Why I agreed to become chairman of Leeds United

April 25, 2003

"Now that you are spending more time in Leeds you need to get some exercise."

"Fine, I'll spend more time at the football club."

Such Sunday morning banter with my wife eventually led me to become non-executive chairman of Leeds United plc just over three weeks ago.

The past three years have seen remorseless steps towards this end: seats in a corporate lounge; buying a few shares to get better seats; getting to know Peter Ridsdale, the chairman of Leeds, and Allan Leighton, eminent City businessman and deputy chairman; buying more shares (they were cheap); joining the club board and finally the plc board to help generate income from Asia.

Then came the bombshell. Ridsdale, squeezed by ever-mounting pressure from the fans and the City, with club debt at about £80 million, resigned.

Then Leighton, almost casually, said: "John, I have talked to the City institutions, Schroders and Sky [main shareholders in Leeds], and we all agree - you are the man for the job."

Was it really a mad idea? I had faced similar problems at Liverpool Poly when I took over as rector during the Hatton crisis in the mid-1980s.

Coming from a football family, with a father who was on the Football Association's international committee when we won the World Cup and with two fanatical footballing sons, it was tempting.

"You can be part time, low profile," the plc said. "After all, who really knows who the chairman of Arsenal or Manchester United is?" So I agreed.

Three weeks on, the situation is clearer. It's possible to be part time, but with Leeds it's impossible to be low profile. It did not help that news of Ridsdale's resignation was leaked on the morning of March 31. This turned a press conference that David Walker, the laconic director of communications at Leeds, had assured me would involve "just a couple of questions" into a full-blooded media circus with TV cameras and some 30 press men and photographers.

As a marketing man, I should have understood better. Football figures too large in the minds of the population to be low key, and each daily newspaper has some eight pages to fill with sport every day. So half-stories become major announcements and rumours become cast-iron facts.

Now I follow humbly in the footsteps of Professor Sir Rowland Smith, former chairman of Manchester United, in chairing one of our major footballing institutions. Does it really have anything in common with being director of Bolton Institute of Higher Education or rector of the London Institute?

Long ago, I learnt that the basic business tenets of the commercial world, where I had spent much of my career, could and should be applied in academia. So why not at a football club, too? Well, the mysteries of a football team's performance do not find ready comparisons in an institutional validation or awards ceremony. The FA seems very different from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and referees are not quite the same as external examiners - although both can be quixotic. Also, dare I say it, heads of college and deans can be more temperamental than Harry Kewell or Alan Smith, though both groups have to suffer league tables.

In human resource terms, the approach to issues of delegation and accountability, vision, personal development and team spirit is the same at Unilever and the London Institute, and both on and off the pitch at Leeds.

Living within budget while seeking income to balance the books is as appropriate for football as for any other business.

Security of tenure may favour the London Institute, but there is nothing quite so heady as a 6-1 win away to Charlton with a hat-trick from Mark Viduka. Maybe it's not so bad - or mad - after all.

John McKenzie is non-executive chairman of Leeds United plc and founding governor of international development at the London Institute

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